Let’s talk about everyone’s favorite subject: feeling like a failure.

It’s an area in which I have extensive experience. I remember every time I said something idiotic; every ridiculous thing I’ve done; every daft choice I’ve made. (Or at least I would remember each one, if only there hadn’t been so many of them.) Afterwards, I lie in bed at night and mentally gnash my teeth in frustration. Why? Why did I do that? Why did I say that? They must think I’m an idiot.

Maybe you debaters can relate. Remember how you felt when…

…you gave the worst 1NC of your life

…you completely contradicted your partner

…you bumbled your way through a horrible cross-ex

…you told the judge that whales are worthless, then suddenly glanced down and realized he was wearing a ‘save the whales’ t-shirt

Can’t relate? Well, just be patient. Your time will come.

Everyone experiences mortification at some point. Last week, we talked about a few common responses to these events (that we’ve affectionately labeled ‘Morts’). The easy, default response is either blame shifting or quitting. But, as we discussed, these aren’t the best responses. They don’t demonstrate or build character. So what should you try instead?

During the Mort

If you’re standing in the midst of a Mort, thunderstruck, surrounded by the shattered pieces of your credibility, appalled by what you just did, take a breath. Keep calm. Remember your training. You can still make it out alive.

  1. Get Perspective. Remember two things: first, this is one moment in one round in one tournament in one year of high school. Sure, it seems cataclysmic now, but it will soon fade into the background. The Mort does not set the outline of your character—only your response does. Second, people don’t think about you nearly as much as you think they do. I like this blogger’s assessment: “What was a horrifying experience for you is a minor detail for them; most likely forgotten a few days or weeks later. They have their own embarrassing moments to worry about, their own lives to focus on.” In essence: chin up. Keep putting one foot in front of the other.
  2. Be Humble. No, I don’t mean grovel to regain favor. Psychologist Karl Albrecht explains humility like this: “Humility is about emotional neutrality. It involves an experience of growth in which you no longer need to put yourself above others, but you don’t put yourself below them, either. It’s about behaving and reacting from purposes, not emotions. You learn to simply disconnect or de-program the competitive reflex in situations where it’s not productive.”
  3. Acknowledge It. Disclaimer: sometimes, it’s best not to draw too much attention to your mistake. You may have been mortified, but it’s possible no one else noticed. However, in other cases, you need to address it. Be honest. If you’re open about the Mort and acknowledge it, other people won’t feel as awkward. A light-hearted phrase such as, “That’s not the first time I’ve done that,” can defuse the tension. As you’re doing this, remember to take responsibility. Never blame your partner, the judge, the room, the audience, or any external factor: taking responsibility demonstrates that your character is strong enough to bear it.

After the Mort

After surviving the Mort, the steepest part of the path is still ahead. It’s like hiking: you know you’re coming to the real trail when you get past the tree line. It’s the rockiest time, but also the most rewarding. As you navigate this place, keep these tips in mind.

  1. Persevere. In one of Fred Astaire’s first screen tests, an executive is reported to have written: “Can’t act. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” He didn’t get the role. JK Rowling’s manuscript for The Philosopher’s Stone was rejected by 12 publishers before finally being picked up by Bloomsbury. FDR, Michelle Obama, Hilary Clinton, and others failed the bar exam before going on to become political giants. Paulina Bandy failed the bar 13 times, finally passing it on her 14th try. Her LinkedIn profile now boasts the title, ‘Bar Exam Tutor’. The point is this: don’t give up. If you throw in the towel now, how will you ever succeed? If you let this one moment defeat you, you’ve let it define you.
  2. Process Through It. Morts can be incredibly useful, if you let them. To maximize their potential, you can’t just pretend they never happened. Instead, work through them logically. Assess each one, determine what went wrong, and what you can do differently next time. Evaluating each Mort helps you categorize it and move past it.
  3. Make Changes. This is a paradigm shift. Stop thinking, ‘the world is full of mushroom spores and traffic lights’ to ‘the world is a place to go skydiving and bungee jumping’. In other words, stop treating the Mort as pointless pain. Instead, see it as a chance to get better. Identify what you can do differently and fix it for next time. Never lose the same way twice.
    A debater I know recently got a really harsh ballot. The judge wielded speaker points like a battle axe, handing out 1s for the slightest infraction and slamming the debaters with verbal censure. This speaker was pretty shaken up when she read the ballot—it’d be hard not to be. She felt like a horrible person. But it forced her to evaluate the round more critically. She assessed her behavior and started to realize that she could have been more courteous, more organized, more professional. Though it was a difficult experience, it brought her face to face with some changes she needed to make to be a better communicator.
  4. Take Risks. Oh, it’s so tempting to let Morts drive you back to your armchair, wondering why you ever ventured out of it in the first place. You feel ridiculous, so you decide never to do that again—never to tackle something new or challenging. This is the polar opposite of what you should do. Feeling stupid doesn’t mean play it safe. You shouldn’t be afraid to try new thingsif you never stretch your limits, those limits will never be expanded.

In a semi-related point, you can check out this post for three signs you’re about to do something regrettable. They’re not particularly relevant in a debate round, but in all other areas of life? Definitely.

Because in all areas of life, you will have Morts. You will feel like a failure. You will feel stupid.

But when you feel stupid, you need to realize that you’ve been given a choice: to advance, or retreat.

You’ve been given an opportunity.

What are you going to do with it?